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Eating Well on the Cheap

Saving Money while Eating Healthier Food

Eating well on the cheap

Eating well is crucial to your mental and emotional health, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on food. Whether you’re at school, living on your own, or raising a family on a budget, with these tips you can enjoy healthy food on the cheap. The more you focus on purchasing local, unprocessed food, preparing meals at home, and making mealtimes a social experience, the healthier and tastier your meals will be, the better you’ll feel, think and act and the more money you’ll save.

Eating well on the cheap is about more than the cost of food

The key to saving money on food is to limit unnecessary spending, revise your shopping habits, and focus on healthier choices. But eating well on the cheap is about more than just the cost and quality of food. It's also about the pleasure of eating, which increases when a meal is shared. Whether you prepare meals for the whole family or live alone, you can make inexpensive meals more pleasurable.

  • Shop with others. Getting your kids involved in shopping for groceries and preparing meals is a great opportunity to teach them about different foods, how to read food labels, and balancing a budget. Shopping with a friend can give you a chance to catch up without falling behind on your chores. It’s also a great way to share new meal ideas and save money on discount deals like "buy one, get the second half price." 
  • Make mealtimes a social experience. The simple act of talking to a friend or loved over the dinner table can play a big role in relieving stress and boosting mood. Gather the family together and stay up to date on everyone’s daily lives. If you live alone, invite a friend, coworker, or neighbor over. Everyone who lives alone is in the same boat—so be the one to break the ice.
  • Cook with others. Invite a friend to share shopping and cooking responsibilities—one prepares the entrée, the other dessert, for example. Cooking with others can be a fun way to deepen relationships and splitting the costs can make it cheaper for both of you.

Eating well on the cheap tip #1: Make smart choices

  • Cut the junk. Eliminate unhealthy foods such as soda, cookies, crackers, prepackaged meals, and processed foods. Your wallet and your body will thank you.
  • Eat out less. It may seem that fast food is less expensive than cooking at home. But a meal for two at a fast-food restaurant in the U.S., with drinks and a side of fries each, can cost $10 to $15; for a family of four it’s $20 to $30. Preparing a simple, healthy beef stew or roast chicken with vegetables can cost far less and leave you leftovers as well. Even if you live alone, there are plenty of ways to cook cheap, healthy meals at home.
  • Stick to your grocery list. The more prepared you are, the less impulse purchases you’ll make.
  • Shop the perimeter of the store first. You’ll fill your cart with healthy whole foods like fresh produce and meat, leaving less room for the "junk food fillers" that tend to cost more.
  • Beware of hidden sugars. Many packaged or processed foods contain high levels of hidden sugar. They may fill you up for cheap, but too much sugar causes rapid swings in energy and blood sugar, and can contribute to serious health problems. Avoid foods such as instant mashed potatoes, white bread, canned soups and vegetables, refined pasta, and sugary cereals.
  • Don’t replace saturated fat with bad carbs. Many of us replace healthy sources of saturated fat, such as whole milk dairy, with refined carbs, thinking we’re making a healthier choice. But for many people, whole milk dairy can help fill you up quicker so you eat less, helping you to save money on food and lose weight. See The Fat Debate.

Know your good carbs from your bad carbs

Healthy carbs (or good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy carbs are digested slowly, providing long-lasting energy and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable.

Unhealthy carbs (refined or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Unhealthy carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and only short-lived energy.

Purchasing the healthiest food possible

When eating on the cheap it is still important to think about the quality of the food you purchase. Organically grown food reduces the potential health and environmental hazards posed by pesticides, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and additives.

  • Buy the highest quality possible for the foods you eat the most. You’ll reduce your exposure to things such as pesticides and antibiotics, while increasing the nutritional value of your food.
  • Buy cheaper cuts of higher quality meat. Instead of buying expensive cuts of steak from industrially raised animals, for example, choose cheaper cuts from organic/grass-fed/free-range sources of meat.
  • Educate yourself. Certain fruits and vegetables have more chemical residue than others. As a general rule, if you eat the skin (such as an apple, strawberry, cucumber) choose organic, while sticking to conventionally grown for produce such as bananas, pineapple, or avocados.

Eating well on the cheap tip #2: Shop wisely

The conventional grocery store is not the only place to buy food. Other venues may offer a significantly cheaper way to purchase food.

  • Discount stores. Warehouse or club stores like Costco offer great bargains for seasonal produce , and foods such as chicken breasts and cheese. To avoid waste, freeze large portions in smaller, more manageable sizes.
  • Search out Farmers' Markets. Many places host weekly farmers' markets where local farmers sell fresh food directly, often cheaper than the grocery store. Towards the end of the market, some venders sell remaining perishable items at a discount.
  • Join a CSA (community supported agriculture) group or start a cooperative buying club with like-minded people in your neighborhood. A CSA is a great way to have local, seasonal food delivered directly from a farmer. Buying clubs can help make grocery shopping a more social experience.
  • Ethnic markets and corner stores are worth looking into. Many feature an impressive, affordable selection of fruits and vegetables, as well as other products.
  • Purchase generic/store brands. When you shop at conventional grocery stores, the store or generic brand will often be cheaper than the name brand for the same quality product.
  • Join the grocery store savings club and look out for discount coupons for more savings.

Eating well on the cheap tip #3: Find cheaper protein options

Whether it is from meat or vegetarian sources, your body relies on protein for many of its functions. By making a few dietary adjustments we can save money AND still eat plenty of protein.

  • Purchase less expensive cuts of meat and practice portion control. You’ll save money on the cut of meat and stretch the meat for more meals when you make tasty casseroles, sauces, soups, stews, and stir-fries. Using the bones, you can make a satisfying bone broth and it’s easy to add vegetables, beans, and whole grains to create delicious, filling meals.
  • Experiment with vegetarian sources of protein. Veggie proteins, such as beans or lentils, are tasty, inexpensive, and easy to prepare. Stock up on dried and/or canned beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and eggs.
  • Enjoy probiotics. Yogurt, soft cheeses, and kefir are inexpensive sources of protein and calcium and also contain probiotics or “good” bacteria which can improve digestive and mental health. Non-dairy probiotic foods include sauerkraut, vegetables that have pickled in brine rather than vinegar, miso soup, and tempeh.
  • Canned fish and chicken are a great option for things like sandwiches, enchiladas, casseroles, and salads.

Eating well on the cheap tip #4: Buy in bulk

Doing things in bulk saves time and money. It’s always a good idea to buy non-perishable items, such as dried beans and canned fish, in bulk. You can freeze perishable items, such as meat and bread, in smaller portions to use as needed or split them with a friend—saving you both money.

  • Shop for produce in season and buy by the bag. When produce is in season it is at its cheapest, as well as its tastiest and most nutritious. It's cheaper to purchase fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapefruit, potatoes, and onions by the bag, not by the piece.
  • Check the freezer aisle. Look for the largest packages of vegetables in the frozen foods section. Frozen and fresh veggies are equally nutritious, still taste good, and often the largest frozen bags will offer the best value.
  • Buy all your grains in bulk (including cereals) and store them in airtight containers. Examples are whole grain brown rice, millet, barley, and rolled oats, all excellent sources of nutrients, including protein.
  • Bulk up on protein. Meat is often sold in larger packages at a lower price. Split packages up into meal-size portions and freeze for later use or buy a whole chicken and have the butcher cut it up.

Eating well on the cheap tip #5: Stretch your money when you cook

Preparing large portions of food to use over multiple meals saves time and energy.

  • Cook once and eat multiple times. Cook a large meal at the beginning of the week so that you have extra to use later in the week when you don't feel like cooking.
  • One-pot dishes, such as soups, stews, or casseroles, save on preparation time, money, and dishwashing. You can cook one pot of oatmeal and heat up a serving each morning; vary it by adding fruit, nuts, or seeds for a breakfast that is cheap and nutritious, without lots of added sugar.

Make new meals from previous ones

All leftovers can be used for another meal.

  • Soups, stews, or stir-fries: Create a base with broth or a sauce, or by sautéing onion or garlic, then add any leftovers you have. A small amount of meat is perfect to add flavor and substance. You can also be very creative with herbs and spices to create unique flavors.
  • Everything burritos: Most leftovers make very tasty burritos. Simply put everything into a tortilla shell (try to get whole grain) with a little cheese or salsa and enjoy.
  • Experiment with combinations: You may be surprised how many foods with different flavors go well together. For example, try making a large green salad and adding cooked whole grains and veggies on the top, as well as pieces of meat from another meal.

Food presentation: Make meals look inviting

Presentation makes a huge difference in the appeal of a meal. Eating on a budget can still be elegant, romantic, fun, and of course tasty. Some easy ways to spice up the table:

  • Colorful meals: Contrasting colors can be pleasing on the eye. Add some bright green herbs or yellow corn to a dish of black beans or lentils, for example. Use carrots, red tomatoes, or red and yellow peppers to brighten a green salad.
  • Inviting table setting: Place a candle or some fresh flowers in the center of the table. Use a colorful tablecloth, place mats, or napkins.
  • Involve the kids: Invite children to set the table. Let them decorate it in their own unique way.

Eating well on the cheap tip #6: Dessert can be affordable, healthy, and delicious

Dessert can be affordable, healthy, and deliciousCutting out sugary junk food doesn’t mean cutting out all desserts. Instead of expensive, processed desserts packed with sugar, such as cakes, cookies, and muffins, end a meal with:

  • Popsicles. Freeze your own 100% fruit juice popsicles. If you don't have a Popsicle tray, use an ice-cube tray with plastic spoons as handles.
  • Home baked items. Oatmeal cookies with rolled oats are a good example of a healthier, home baked dessert. Try reducing the amount of sugar any recipe calls for—many desserts taste just as good.
  • Yogurt. Buy a large container of plain yogurt and make each serving unique by adding a seasonal fruit.
  • Frozen treats. Try freezing grapes or berries or cutting bananas or peaches into pieces and then freezing. For an amazing dessert pour dark chocolate sauce over the fruit.
  • Chocolate. Many of us have chocolate cravings. Dark chocolate is actually quite high in antioxidants so enjoy the occasional square of dark chocolate (70% or higher is best).

The more love you feel, the less stress you experience. Read FEELING LOVED.

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More help for healthy eating

Resources and references

Cheap healthy foods

Meal Planning: Healthy Eating On A Budget – This article has useful tips on budget food shopping. (The Diet Channel)

Eat Like A King On A Budget: A Healthy Diet Doesn't Have To Be Expensive – This article gives straightforward tips on healthy eating on a budget. (The Diet Channel)

Resources for healthy and alternative shopping in the U.S.

Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce – Helpful chart ranking the 12 fruits and vegetables that are highest and lowest in pesticide residue, including a downloadable wallet-size shopping guide or smartphone app. (Foodnews.org)

Community Supported Agriculture Farms Database – A searchable database of CSA farms by state. (Alternative Farming Systems Information Center/USDA)

Local Harvest: Real Food, Real Farmers, Real Community – A great resource for finding local growers, farmer's markets, and CSAs in your area.

Coop Directory Service: Find A Natural Food Coop Near You – Searchable database of food cooperative distributors and information on how to start a buying club. (Coop Directory)

An Easy Way to Eat Healthier this Summer: Find a Farmers’ Market – Discusses the many benefits of farmers’ markets for your health and your budget. (Harvard Health Publications)

Eat Well Guide – Find local, organic, sustainable food from farms, markets, restaurants and more in the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)

Resources for healthy and alternative shopping internationally

Australian Farmers' Markets Directory – Find local farmers' markets in Australia. (AFMA)

Farmers Markets Across Canada – List of farmers’ markets in Canada (Travel to Wellness)

Farma Members Map – Directory of farmers’ markets and farm shops in the UK. (FARMA)

The role of sugar and salt in a cheap, healthy diet

Sodium Content of Your Food – How sodium affects your body and how to cut down on dietary sodium. Included tips on reading nutrition labels, and suggestions for cooking and shopping. (University of Maine – PDF)

Sugar Stacks – Photos showing the amount of sugar in different foods. (Sugar Stacks)

Public Health Takes Aim at Sugar and Salt – Article detailing evidence that too much of these ingredients can harm health. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Fast Facts on Sugar and Salt – Includes how to interpret food labels. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Authors: Maya W. Paul, Robert Segal, M.A., and Melinda Smith, M.A. Last updated: June 2016.